Writing Even in Darkness fulfilled three important aspirations in my author life. It’s a love letter to a woman who influenced me more than she ever knew. It’s the fulfillment of the top item on my bucket list, which was to write a novel. And perhaps most interestingly, it represented the opportunity to write my way into an understanding of the impact my family’s Holocaust experiences had on me as a second-generation survivor.
The character Kläre Kohler in Even in Darkness is based on my great aunt, who was born in 1895, and lived her 100 years in Germany through two world wars and the Holocaust. I first met her when I was six years old during her first visit to America, an event which I dimly remember in the haze of rapid-fire German conversation, long meals, bottles of wine, and fragrant cigar smoke that characterized a lot of the time I spent at my grandparents’ home. I loved Kläre from the moment I met her, and her life in Germany seemed like a mystery. Why did she stay there after surviving the war and the concentration camp, when the rest of her family was in the U.S., Belgium and England? Why was she living with a Catholic priest?
In later years Kläre visited several more times for significant family events and I met and became devoted to the priest who is the basis for the character Ansel in Even in Darkness. I began to travel to Europe, often with my grandparents, and rarely did so without stopping to visit Kläre and Ansel in Germany or arrange for them to join us. Over those many visits I learned both Kläre’s and Ansel’s stories of childhood, war, loss and survival. They listened to my stories as well, and I found that across years, cultures, and language, each of them offered wise and astute counsel.
Only in the writing this novel about Kläre, however, did it become clear that in telling her story, I would reach an understanding of my own relationship to my family’s history in Germany and to the Holocaust. My parents had left privileged lives in Germany to escape the Nazis, coming to this country as teenagers. They had met at a German refugee group’s dance, and along with all four of my grandparents, returned to Germany shortly after the war to visit, take care of business matters and even vacation. My grandfather was an attorney who did restitution work, securing pensions and payments for Jews who had lost property, education, health and businesses.
My parents and grandparents were all practicing Jews dedicated to their temples and synagogues here, and were ever grateful to have become American citizens. However, there was no hatred of Germany or German people in our households. The adults around me frequently spoke German to each other and had many German friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. My grandfather was always proud of his service in the German army in World War I and the Iron Cross First Class that was bestowed upon him. Different members of my family couldn’t agree whether we were escapees or survivors of the Holocaust. None of this went down well with some of my friends’ families, who rejected anything and anyone having to do with Germany. Navigating these different responses within and outside my family became a subtle skillset I had to learn.
Kläre helped me. All my life, I’d heard my grandparents describe her as “lucky,” even though her life in Germany was circumscribed by two world wars, time in a concentration camp, and enormous loss. Until I had to write her through all that, and reveal how she emerged as a vibrant, loving person, I didn’t understand that her “luck” was her remarkable capacity to reinvent herself in a way that honored the past, forgot nothing, but forgave much for the sake of creating meaning out of horror. I learned to embrace her example and acceptance of those whose experiences led them to very different places and perspectives as survivors. I treasure those lessons.
Every story needs a narrator, and Barbara Stark-Nemon stepped up early in life. She learned a fascination with the magic of language from her storytelling grandfather. An undergraduate degree in English literature and art history and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Michigan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, universities, and hospitals. As a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness; everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes novels and family histories while gardening, cycling, and creating fiber art in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.
- The Empire of the Senses: A Novel by Alexis Landau
- Contesting Histories: German and Jewish Americans and the Legacy of the Holocaust by Michael Schuldiner
- Unwanted Legacies: Sharing the Burden of Post-Genocide Generations by Gottfried Wagner & Abraham J. Peck